Carry That Weight (Mattress Performance): Rape Accusations in the Age of Social Media

Featured image courtesy of Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Recently the news has had a large focus on rapes on college campuses. Central to those reports- the 2013 “Columbia Rape Controversy”, where an arts student, Emma Sulkowicz, carried around a mattress until Columbia would kick out her accused rapist. The accused, Paul Nungesser, claims that he was the victim of an unfair system and targeted by the student and her friends, then unfairly treated by Columbia University. Both would go on to graduate, and no charges were filed against either student.

This article is neither an endorsement of Emma Sulkowicz’s Carry That Weight (Mattress Performance), nor Paul Nungesser’s lawsuit against Columbia University. Instead, this is an analysis of the events that occurred during the (accused) rape, the Mattress Performance and afterwards, and an objective view of the facts.


Damon Wine/NY Times

Damon Wine/NY Times


There is a fact that is indisputable: rape is a serious matter. It ruins lives. It’s poorly investigated. There’s a lack of a meaningful conversation in this country about this serious, serious matter.

On August 27, 2012, a visual-arts major named Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University had sex with a fellow student, architecture major and German national Paul Nungesser, during their freshman year.

Emma Sulkowicz was born on October 3, 1992 in New York City. She is the daughter of Kerry Jeff Sulkowicz, M.D., a clinical professor of clinical psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and the founder of Boswell Group LLC.; and Sandra Susan Leong, M.D., a psychiatrist with New York- Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital and a graduate of the Brown University Warren Alpert School of Medicine. Sulkowicz graduated from the elite Dalton School in the Upper East Side, whose endowment is currently estimated near $65 million and whose tuition is currently $44,640 for grades K-12. She was reportedly an “A” student and a competitive fencer at the Dalton School.

Paul Jonathan Nungesser is a Berlin-native of Germany and was born in 1991. He is the son of Karin Nungesser, a feminist blogger and a journalist for the National Council of German Woman’s Organizations. His father is Andreas Pobosch, a primary (elementary) school teacher in Kruezberg between Kotbusser Tor and Görlitzer Bahnhof, an area with a high drug-crime rate; he is a member of the Extended Executive Board of Hunsrück-Grundschule Primary School, where nearly one-half of children are on government benefits. Paul Johnathan Nungesser became an international student at Columbia University, becoming a freshman at the university at the same time as Emma Sulkowicz.

Sulkowicz and Nungesser met during a freshman pre-orientation activity, the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program, and became friends. Both joined a co-ed fraternity later that year, the Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity. That fraternity conducted a party in which Sulkowicz and Nungesser attended, where both drank alcohol and Nungesser was only “buzzed”, which was the preceding event before the August 27 sexual activity.

Emma Sulkowicz claims that she was raped during that sexual activity, and said that “I was screaming ‘no’ and struggling against him. It was obviously not consensual, but he was turned on by my distress.” Paul Nungesser maintains that they had consensual anal sex, followed by subsequent sexual acts, fell asleep, and he left her dorm room in the morning following the sexual activity. He denies allegations by Emma Sulkowicz of violence.

Both Emma Sulkowicz and Paul Nungesser admit to sexual activity twice that year preceding the accusation of sexual assault. Facebook messages provided by Paul Nungesser to The Daily Beast and included in a lawsuit against Columbia (which was dismissed due to Judge Gregory H. Woods’s view that the events of Columbia University and Mattress Performance were not gender-based under the lawsuit’s claim in Title IX, but was refiled by Nungesser in April of 2016) show that they were friendly both preceding and proceeding the accusation. Crucial to his argument that there was no rape is that they remained in contact and there was no animosity, including a message sent two months later on Sulkowicz’s birthday, where he sent a warm greeting and she replied: “I love you, Paul. Where are you?!?!?!?!”


Art in America

Art in America

On April 28, 2013, the first day of her sophomore year, Emma Sulkowicz reported a rape to Columbia’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct. She had not had a rape kit done proceeding the August 27 sexual activity, nor had she reported it to any authority beforehand. This complaint was made eight months proceeding the accused rape. She claims she was inspired by Nungesser’s former girlfriend, “Natalie”, who claims she was subject to sexual and emotional abuse during their relationship. Nungesser claims that “Natalie” was dissatisfied with him following a difficult relationship and breakup. She also claimed she was inspired by another female student who claimed that Nungesser had assaulted her.

A seven-month investigation by Columbia University, under the directive of Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, found Paul Nungesser not to be responsible. This investigation was based on the controversial “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which unlike criminal cases, only require that it was more likely than not that Paul Nungesser raped Emma Sulkowicz. Despite the standard being so low, at only a 51% standard, a student tribunal could not say that Paul Nungesser was responsible by the preponderance of evidence standard. Sulkowicz filed for an appeal, which was denied by Columbia’s dean.

“Natalie” also reported sexual misconduct to Columbia’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, but the investigation was closed after she graduated and refused to cooperate with Columbia University’s investigators. A male student of color, named “Adam,” claimed that he was sexually assaulted by Nungesser at the same time. However, many of his claims were inconsistent with physical Facebook messages and a discussion that he had about the incident with an Alpha Delta Phi governing member. Some of the inconsistencies included: a three month gap between the accusation to Columbia and the discussion with Alpha Delta Phi, discrepancies between “Adam’s” claims and the Facebook messages, and accusations that Nungesser aggressed “Adam” by sitting too close to him and his friends in a shared class (an accusation that a Columbia report later called “hyperbolic and illogical”). Nungesser was again found innocent, and “Adam” was written in the Columbia report as “not reliable.”

Another accusation again faced Nungesser, where a senior of Alpha Delta Phi claimed that he had followed her upstairs and tried to kiss her. He was ordered by Columbia University’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct to vacate his room at Alpha Delta Phi, and an investigation was opened into the alleged kiss. Nungesser accused “Adam” and the senior of ADP of being friends of Sulkowicz, regardless, by the end of the year the accusations of Sulkowicz, “Adam”, and the ADP senior were dismissed by Columbia University’s Office of Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, failed to prove his guilt by the preponderance of evidence standard (more than 51% certainty). The family of Nungesser, his primary school teacher father and feminist reporter mother, were forced to hire a defense attorney to ensure this ruling.

In May of 2014, Emma Sulkowitz filed a police report against Nungesser with the New York Police Department. She recorded the filing of the incident for her senior thesis while at Yale University’s Summer School of Art and Music. The purchase of a 50-pound extra-long twin mattress from Tall Paul’s Tall Mall, a video of her filing the rape report, and a video of her moving that mattress out of a dorm room would be the basis of her senior thesis, Carry That Weight (Mattress Performance). It is this thesis, observed by Columbia professor John Kessler, that Paul Nungesser claims was an assault against him and his personal safety.

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